Review: ‘The Times of Bill Cunningham,’ starring Bill Cunningham

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bill Cunningham at a Patou Collection in Paris in 1970.
Bill Cunningham at a Patou Collection in Paris in 1970. (Photo by Jean Luce Huré)

“The Times of Cunningham”

Directed by Mark Bozek

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City, the documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham” chronicles the life of celebrity/fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, who came from a middle-class background but rubbed shoulders with society’s elite for most of his career while still maintaining a connection to street life.

Culture Clash: Cunningham kept his integrity in an increasingly tabloid-oriented media landscape, and in his early career as a milliner, he experienced sexism in this female-dominated part of the fashion industry.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to people interested in a fascinating story about how a hat-designer-turned-photographer became one of the most respected figures of fashion and celebrity media.

Bill Cunningham at a fashion show in Paris in 1971
Bill Cunningham at a fashion show in Paris in 1971. (Photo by Harold Chapman/Topfoto/The Image Works)

If you’re aware of the most prominent American photojournalists of the 20th century, then you already know who Bill Cunningham was or where you were the day that you heard he died. Cunningham, who spent most of his career as a New York Times photographer, passed away from a stroke in New York City on June 25, 2016, at the age of 87. He never retired from working. And he was a rare fashion photojournalist who didn’t limit his work to one segment of society. He captured a wide variety of cultures, from haute couture lifestyles to street life of everyday people.

The insightful and somewhat worshipful documentary “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” which revolves around a rare 1994 video interview that director Mark Bozek did with Cunningham, takes a chronological look back at Cunningham’s life story. Sarah Jessica Parker provides voiceover narration. Because Cunningham was the type of photojournalist who didn’t seek attention and glory for himself, he rarely gave interviews. This documentary is probably the closest thing to a Bill Cunningham memoir.

The documentary consists almost entirely of archival footage, including some never-before-seen photos taken by Cunningham. In Cunningham’s own words, we hear about his childhood, growing up in Boston in a strict Catholic family. From an early age, he had a fascination with women’s hats. As a teenager, he worked as a sales clerk at the Boston location of luxury department-store chain Bonwit Teller. At age 19, he dropped out of Harvard University to move to New York City and pursue a full-time career in fashion.

When he moved to New York City to live with an aunt and to pursue his fashion dreams, it’s no surprise that, after a brief stint as an ad associate for Bonwit Teller, he became a milliner, first for Bonwit Teller and then striking out on his own. Women in New York’s high society, as well as Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford, became his clients. His fashion career was interrupted when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War, when he spent some time in France, and then he left the Army to return to New York in 1953.

However, even though his talent was recognized, Cunningham said he faced a lot of sexism because being a milliner was traditionally a woman’s job. And he was initially afraid to tell his family back home in Boston that he was in the fashion industry, so he began his career using an alias: William J.

Cunningham eventually was fired from Bonwit Teller, and he says in retrospect, his dismissal from Bonwit Teller was the best thing to happen to him, because it led him to start his own milliner business. He charmed his way into renting a studio space for a big discount, even though he hadn’t proven himself yet as a successful entrepreneur. Through his hat business, he met Bernadine Morris, who was The New York Times’ fashion critic at the time. She introduced him to a whole new set of clientele and eventually played a role in Cunningham switching careers from milliner to journalist.

But during his hat-designing days, Cunningham had some memorable moments, including times when actor Marlon Brando would hide out in the studio when he was being chased by female fans. Bill also remembers that writer Norman Mailer and his third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, shared the studio with him. And his most famous neighbor was photographer Editta Sherman, who later did some modeling for Campbell in his early years as a fashion photographer. Cunningham also remembers meeting former King Edward VIII of Great Britain and his wife, Wallis Simpson. Cunningham describes him as charming, down-to-earth, and willing to put people at ease instead of using his royal lineage to intimidate people. 

Cunniningham closed his hat shop in 1962, and he began working at the New York City boutique Chez Ninon, which catered to the wealthy. As for which type of fashionistas impressed him the most, Cunningham says it wasn’t the Hollywood celebrities (he thought most of these stars didn’t have style in real life), but the New York high society women who were the ones with the most elegant style and best fashion taste. Jackie Kennedy was one of his favorite clients. Cunningham says that the pink Chanel outfit that Kennedy wore on the tragic day in 1963 that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated was actually not a Chanel original but a knockoff from a Balenciaga outfit.

Just like at Bonwit Teller, Cunningham was eventually ousted at Chez Ninon, and he says it was because the women who worked at Chez Ninon weren’t entirely comfortable with him as a milliner because he was a man. It was around this time that Cunningham got his first professional photographer’s camera, in 1967. He worked for a time as a fashion critic for Women’s Wear Daily and the Chicago Tribune, but photography turned out to be his true love.

He began taking photos of New York street life, but the photos of celebrities are the ones that got him the most attention. (Cunningham never considered himself to be part of the paparazzi, because he didn’t stalk people.) In 1978, he took a famous photo of Greta Garbo, who was a recluse at the time, while she was walking on a New York City street. The New York Times published the photo. And from that year onward, he worked for The New York Times until his death in 2016. It was during his long stint working for The New York Times that Cunningham began to wear his signature item of clothing: a blue jacket.

In the documentary’s video interview with Cunningham, he shares a lot of his thoughts on fashion, by saying that fashion can be described in three categories: what is shown, what is written about, and what is worn. “I don’t think of myself as a photographer. I think of myself as a fashion historian,” he says. He also says that he doesn’t have a favorite era in fashion because “fashion makes people feel good. As long as there are human beings in the world, there will be fashion.”

The first time that Cunningham covered the Met Gala (the annual fashion fundraiser for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute), it was during the era when Diana Vreeland was editor-in-chief of Vogue. He chronicled the Met Gala, for 11 years when it was under Vreeland’s supervision, not only through photos but also through audio recordings and notes. The documentary includes a rare audio recording of Vreeland and Andre Leon Talley talking during preparations for a Met Gala. The one Met Gala preparation he didn’t cover extensively was the one in 1976, which had the theme “The Glory of the Russian Costume,” because Vreeland and the Russians clashed too much over the exhibit.

Speaking of conflicts, Cunningham also remembers how his presence wasn’t always welcome when he would take pictures. He tells a story about how the head of a perfume company (he didn’t say her name) called the police on him because she was sure that Cunningham was a pickpocket posing as a photographer. Although he was able to avoid being arrested, the incident was so unnerving that he remembered it in full detail all those years later.

One of the highlights of his career, he says, was being at the Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in 1973, when French designers and American designers who represented fashion’s A-list competed against each other in a fashion show to raise money for the Palace of Versailles in France. The French designers were Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Emanuel Ungaro, Hubert de Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. The American designers were Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Anne Klein. (The Americans won.) Cunningham said that Burrows was his favorite designer at the event because his designs were truly unique from everyone else’s.

Cunningham undoubtedly got to experience many glamorous events and take photos of many celebrities, but he felt it was equally important to document the street life of everyday people, including the homeless. He also covered news events happening on the streets, such as protests and parades, including the first Pride parade in New York in 1970. He breaks down and cries a few times during the interview: When he talks about things he saw on the street that he didn’t have the heart to photograph (he didn’t go into details in the interview) and when he talks about the devastation of the AIDS crisis.

Throughout the interview, Cunningham also shows his boyish wit and humility. He constantly downplays the importance of his work, and says at one point, “I’m not talented.” He also says that he’s basically shy, so he never got over being nervous about working on the street or meeting new people.

Cunningham was also very eccentric and very frugal, since he we would always stay at cheap hotels when he traveled for business, while many of his colleagues and peers would travel first-class. His only spending indulgence was for his art collection. Cunningham, who was famous for getting around by bicycle, also reveals his philosophy on how he chose which bikes to get: “The cheaper, the better.”

And he also explains what he loves most about his work: “The freedom.” He adds that “New York is an extraordinary city,” and The New York Times was like a “blank canvas” where he could display his work. And the hardest part of the job for Cunningham? Spelling people’s names correctly.

Although Cunningham doesn’t talk about it in the documentary, Parker’s voiceover narration mentions that during his lifetime, Cunningham was extremely generous with his money, by donating millions to AIDS charities and the Catholic Church. When Cunningham’s close artist friend Antonio Lopez was dying of AIDS and didn’t have health insurance, Cunningham bought a painting from Lopez for $130,000, and then gave the painting back to Lopez.

The one thing about Cunningham that the documentary doesn’t discuss is his love life. He never married, didn’t have kids, and he never publicly disclosed what his sexuality was. Whatever his sexual orientation was, it’s obvious from the documentary that Cunningham was married to his job. If he ever did have any serious love relationships in his lifetime, they definitely would’ve been less of a priority for him than his work. The documentary shows that he spent so much of his waking hours devoted to his work, that it’s no wonder he didn’t seem to have any time to settle down with someone special.

Although the documentary certainly reveals a lot about Cunningham (except his love life), it comes across as a little too fawning. He was certainly a beloved media figure, but the documentary could have been more well-rounded by interviewing people who were his rivals to get their perspectives. And because the basis of the documentary is a video interview that he did in 1994, the interview looks extremely dated. Had the interview taken place in a later decade, Cunningham would have been able to offer his thoughts on how digital technology and the Internet have transformed the photography profession. However, the documentary does have a treasure trove of archival footage, which is one of the main reasons to see this movie.

Cunningham’s legacy is a reminder that it’s possible to be a street photographer and be a well-respected gentleman, which is a rare quality when photographers who do their work on the streets are rewarded for being pushy and aggressively obnoxious. And in this day and age of smartphones and social media where people can curate and Photoshop their own images any way that they please, Cunningham represents a bygone era where photographers had more gatekeeper influence in the fashion industry. As more journalists than ever before have a tabloid “look at me” mentality, Cunningham always maintained the ethics of a true journalist, by observing and reporting truths, instead of trying to put the spotlight on himself.

Greenwich Entertainment released “The Times of Bill Cunningham” in New York City on February 14, 2020. The movie’s U.S. theatrical release will expand to other cities in subsequent weeks.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Martha: A Picture Story’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Martha Cooper in "Martha: A Picture Story"
Martha Cooper in “Martha: A Picture Story” (Photo by Michael Latham)

“Martha: A Picture Story”

Directed by Selina Miles

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.

If you were to ask art aficionados who are the most respected and influential photographers of graffiti art, chances are that Martha Cooper would be near or at the top of the list. “Martha: A Picture Story” is a fascinating if uneven documentary of Cooper and her career. The movie keeps the spotlight focused on her professional life, since her personal life is barely mentioned.

Early on in the movie, Cooper says, “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon. It’s not the direction I was going after.” What did happen was that Cooper discovered her passion for photography early on in her life so that by the time she graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa with an art degree at the age of 19, she was on her way to breaking into the male-dominated field of professional photography.

Early on in her career, her goal was to work for National Geographic. In order to do that, she had to build up a portfolio, so she joined the Peace Corps in 1963 at the age of 20, and lived for a while in Thailand. The photos she took while in the Peace Corps helped land her an internship at National Geographic.

She then married an anthropologist, and they moved to Japan, where he had his field work. While in Japan, she took photos of Japanese tattoo artists, but those photos were rejected by National Geographic because tattooing was considered too weird at the time. After moving back to the United States, Cooper became a staff photographer at the Rhode Island newspapers the Narragansett Times and the Standard Times.

She became bored with life in Rhode Island, and decided that New York City was more her speed, so she moved there in 1977. She had a fateful meeting with Susan Welchma, who was the photo editor at the New York Post at the time, and Cooper was hired to become the New York Post’s first female staff photographer.

It was at the New York Post that Cooper took her iconic photos of New York City street life in the 1970s and 1980s, and she says she fell passionately in love with capturing graffiti art in particular. Legendary graffiti artist Dondi (who was the subject of many of Cooper’s most famous graffiti photos) is obviously mentioned. Cooper says of Dondi that he was “very articulate” and “I spent eight hours one night watching him do a piece. It was fascinating.”

There are also some current and former graffiti artists who give interviews in the movie, such as Skeme, Doze Green, Carlos “Mare139” Rodriguez and Jay “J.Son” Edlin. Also interviewed is photographer Henry Chalfant, who co-authored with Cooper the book “Subway Art,” a collection of photos of graffiti art on subways. Chalfant says that he and Cooper were rivals who decided it was better to join forces for the book. “Subway Art” was a flop when it was first published in 1984, but it developed a cult following. Because the book was hard to find (libraries had difficulty keeping it in their inventories because the book would often be borrowed and not returned), that lack of availability increased the demand for “Subway Art,” and it was eventually re-published and became a hit.

Cooper says she became so “obsessed” with graffiti art that she quit her job at the New York Post to photograph graffiti on a full-time basis. Welchma also moved on from the New York Post to become a photo editor at National Geographic, but Cooper’s work with the magazine “was not a good fit,” says Welchma. Cooper agrees, and says that her style of taking photos clashed with what National Geographic wanted. National Geographic wanted their photographers to “make photos,” while Cooper wanted to “take photos.” In other words, National Geographic wanted photos to look iconic, while Cooper felt more comfortable with spontaneous, “slice of life” photography that showed everyday people. Cooper, who is now a freelance photographer, has been working with City Lore—a New York City center for urban culture—since 1986. City Lore founder Steve Zeitlin is one of the people interviewed in the movie, and naturally, he has high praise for her.

Cooper’s marriage didn’t last, because she says that, among other things, her husband didn’t like living in New York City. She also says that she made a decision early on in her life that she didn’t want to have children, and that her friends give her emotional fulfillment. (Cooper also has a cat, who is shown numerous times in the movie when Cooper is being interviewed at her New York City apartment.) That’s about the extent of what’s said in the documentary about her personal life as an adult.

Curiously, the documentary doesn’t mention Cooper’s early influences and childhood until halfway through the movie. Growing up in Baltimore, she came from a family who encouraged her creativity: Her father co-owned a camera store with her uncle, and her mother was an English teacher. It isn’t until the documentary shows Cooper at her second home in Baltimore that her Baltimore roots are mentioned. Instead of living in a safe area, Cooper chose to reside in Baltimore’s crime-ridden Sowebo neighborhood to better capture street life. That’s not the kind of thing that most senior citizens would want to do in their golden years.

It’s in Baltimore that we see some of Cooper’s eccentricities. She shows a plastic bag full of disposed hypodermic needle caps that she’s collected in her predominately African American neighborhood. The items, which come in various colors and were obviously discarded by junkies, definitely have an “ick” factor, but Martha holds up one of the items up and says, “Isn’t that cute?”

This scene in the movie might have people thinking that Cooper is a white culture vulture who’s exploiting poor black people’s disenfranchisement for her own career. Cooper and documentary director Selina Miles don’t see it that way, because they go to great lengths to show that Cooper really does care about people of color, since there are numerous shots of her hugging people of different races and being friendly to everyone. And at an age when most people have settled into retirement, Cooper is still hanging out with graffiti artists all over the world, including the United States and Brazil.

If Cooper is accepted in urban communities that are predominately populated by blacks and Latinos, another place where she has an ardent following is Germany, where “Subway Art” was first published after U.S. publishers rejected the book. Germany is also where the documentary follows Cooper as she accompanies and photographs two graffiti artists (with their faces covered and voices disguised) who do an illegal “art attack” in a Berlin U-Banh station.

Earlier in the film, Cooper is shown doing the same thing with a group of about 10 graffiti artists (whose faces and voices are also disguised) who “art attack” a subway station in New York City. Cooper laments that New York City’s subways are now clean and “boring,” compared to the city’s graffiti heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. The documentary acknowledges that while many people see graffiti as vandalism and an eyesore, others such as Cooper see it as art.

There are some scenes in the film with Cooper going back to the original sites of her graffiti photos to compare how much the sites have been cleaned up since the photos were taken. The documentary also shows Cooper visiting Miami’s Wynwood Walls (a place for graffiti murals), where she talks about how smartphones and Instagram have made the art of photography more widespread and democratic. However, the world of professional photojournalism is still dominated by men. Cooper essentially says in the movie (because she’s living proof) that most women who succeed in photojournalism have to give up the idea that they can be a traditional wife and mother, if they choose to get married or have any children.

Even with all of her worldwide acclaim, Cooper says she still doesn’t feel accepted in the art world. That feeling is apparent when she has a somewhat awkward meeting with Steven Kasher, who at the time owned a self-titled photo gallery in New York City. (He closed the gallery at the end of 2018 to become a director of the influential David Zwirner gallery in New York City.) While considering Cooper’s photos for an upcoming exhibit, Kasher sniffs at her that he’s probably going to avoid choosing her photos of “cute children” and “smiling people” because people “don’t take those kinds of photos seriously,” but he might be convinced to use a few of those photos if she “pleads her case.”

It’s a scene like that where Cooper is shown being vulnerable and being critically judged that make the documentary more interesting than the predictable scenes of her being fawned over and adored by fans. The documentary also shows a somewhat sheepish Cooper reading old entries from her journal that describe her angst over being rejected early on in her career.

Even though the movie jumps all over the place and could have used better editing, Cooper’s passion for what she does and her engaging spirit make up for any minor production flaws that this documentary has. In the movie, Cooper shares her philosophy on how she approaches her work—and it’s a viewpoint that can also apply to how people should watch this film: “I’m not looking for ‘beautiful,’ but people making the best of what they have.”

Patrick Demarchelier, David Bellemere, Greg Kadel among fashion photographers accused of sexual misconduct in explosive Boston Globe article

February 16, 2018

by Colleen McGregor

Sarah Paulson in Town & Country's February 2018 issue (Photo by Patrick Demarchelier)
Sarah Paulson in Town & Country’s February 2018 issue (Photo by Patrick Demarchelier)

The Boston Globe has published a major investigative article in which numerous models and others in the fashion industry have accused several high-profile fashion photographers of sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. The photographers, who deny all the allegations, include Patrick Demarchelier, David Bellemere, Greg Kadel, Andre Passos and Seth Sabal. In addition, stylist Karl Templer has also been accused of sexual misconduct in the article, which was published on February 16, 2018. Templer also denies the allegations.

The harassment allegations include unwanted sexual advances (verbal and physical), inappropriate touching and sexual assault. All of the alleged victims, many of whom want to remain anonymous, say that the accused used their power to intimidate and pressure people into letting the accused get away with this behavior for years.

Demarchelier, who used to be Princess Diana’s photographer, was dropped by Condé Nast (parent company of magazines such as Vogue, GQ, Glamour, and Vanity Fair) after the Boston Globe contacted Condé Nast about the allegations against Demarchelier. Kadel has also been dropped by Condé Nast and Victoria’s Secret, another longtime employer of his. Meanwhile, Victoria’s Secret and Lord & Taylor severed ties with  Bellemere in 2016, which suggests that the companies knew about problems with him long before the Boston Globe article was published.

The Boston Globe article comes after three other famous fashion photographers faced career consequences after being accused of sexual misconduct in incidents that span several years. In January 2018, Condé Nast dropped Mario Testino and Bruce Weber, who was also let go by designer Michael Kors after the allegations were made public.  In October 2017, Terry Richardson was fired by Condé Nast, Valentino and Bulgari. The same week that Condé Nast cut ties with Testino and Weber, the company announced that it had revised its photography policy, which now includes no longer hiring models under the age of 18 and no longer serving alcohol at photo shoots.

The #MeToo effect on the fashion industry also raises a larger question of why there isn’t more diversity in fashion photography, which is dominated by men. After all, fashion photography doesn’t require any abilities in which one gender is more inclined to excel over another, compared to a physically demanding job. Why isn’t the fashion industry giving more opportunities to female photographers? It could go a long way in creating a more equal balance of power since photographers usually control the environments in which models are at their most vulnerable. Although women are also capable of committing sexual harassment, it’s been proven time and again that the vast majority of people who commit sexual harassment are men in power. Firing photographers accused of sexual harassment is a short-term band-aid when fashion photography still perpetuates sexism by letting one gender dominate the power structure instead of giving equal opportunities to males and females.

 

Bruce Weber and Mario Testino scandals: Famed photographers accused of sexually harassing men; Conde Nast overhauls policies for fashion shoots

January 13, 2018

by Colleen McGregor

Bruce Weber
Bruce Weber (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for DuJour)

Several fashion publications have cut ties with photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino after the New York Times published stories from men (mostly male models) who accused Weber and Testino of sexual harassment, including unwanted groping and masturbation. Condé Nast (the company that publishes Vogue, Vanity Fair and GQ) has announced that it will no longer work with Weber and Testino. Weber and Testino are denying the allegations. The news comes one month after the New York Post reported that Weber is being sued for sexual harassment by model Jason Boyce, who claims that Weber made unwanted sexual advances on him during a December 2014 photo shoot.

Weber (who is 71) and Testino (who is 63) both have famous international careers going back to the 1970s. Their work has been published in several books and all the top fashion magazines. While both photographers worked frequently with fashion brand Versace, Testino’s main client base consisted of European brands such as Gucci, Chanel and Burberry, and Weber’s biggest clients were mostly American brands such as  Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch. Weber’s most recent Vogue (U.S.) cover was the September 2017 issue with Jennifer Lawrence.  Testino’s most recent Vogue (U.S.) cover was the February 2018 issue with Serena Williams and her daughter Alexis. Fashion designer Michael Kors has also cut ties with Testino.

As a result of these and sweeping societal changes being made because of the MeToo movement, Condé Nast has revamped its policies for fashion shoots beyond the usual rules that forbid sexual harassment and other behavior that creates a hostile work environment. According to the New York Times,  Condé Nast will no longer hire models under 18, and will no longer serve alcohol on sets. Any nudity or sexually suggestive imagery must be approved by the modeling subject in advance. Photographers are no longer allowed to use Condé Nast sets for their personal projects after an assignment ends. And people involved in the assignment are encouraged to prevent a situation where two people are in alone in a room together. In addition, a hotline has been set up to report complaints anonymously.

Hearst Media (which publishes Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Esquire and other fashion magazines) also changed its policy for fashion shoots: Independent contractors are now required to reveal any past and present claims of harassment against them.

In late 2017, Condé Nast also severed its business relationship with photographer Terry Richardson, who has faced numerous accusations of sexual assault and sexual harassment over the years. Almost all of his accusers are female models who worked with him. Richardson (whose work often includes graphic sexual imagery) has claimed that these encounters were consensual, and he has not been arrested or charged with any sex crimes.